photo by Vincent Duffy

The Michigan Freedom of Information Act is 34-years-old this month.  According to a ranking by the Better Government Association, it’s one of the stronger Freedom of Information laws in the United States. 

The American Civil Liberties Union wants to know more about the creation of Michigan’s Emergency Financial Manager law. The legislation gives broad new powers to managers appointed by the state to run financially troubled cities and school districts. Those powers include voiding union contracts. 

Kary Moss is with the ACLU of Michigan. She says the ACLU is filing Freedom of Information requests to learn more about who wrote the law. 

“This legislation was passed and signed pretty quickly.   And all that we are trying to do right now is get some more information about ‘What prompted it?’, ‘How is it going to be implemented?’, just so the public can have more information."

Moss says they also want to know who was involved in drafting the legislation. 

"Who was really at the table…when it was drafted...andconceived and discussed.”

Governor Snyder says the law encourages cities and school districts to make financial changes, before an Emergency Financial Manager would be appointed.

The governor’s office has not commented on the ACLU request.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In February, new rules were adopted that prohibit inmates from sending or receiving letters. Inmates can receive or send postcards only. Legal documents are exempt.

Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler cites security reasons for changing the policy earlier this year. He says people send drugs, razor blades, and other contraband inside letters to inmates.

“I can’t give you a specific number of times that we’ve dealt with that, but my perspective as sheriff you know in a facility that needs to be as secure as possible, one is too many.”

About 20 protestors gathered in front of the Muskegon Count Jail today to rally against the policy.

Faith Groesback was among them.

“What do you have to do to ensure that contraband doesn’t come in through a letter? You run it through a metal detector, you have a dog sniff it, you have somebody open it and shake it; it’s not that complicated.”

She argues the policy violates inmates and their loved ones’ privacy and freedom of speech.

“If you’ve ever been, had a relationship of any kind with somebody in that situation, you’d understand how vitally important those letters are and what they mean to them.”

Mal Williams, also of Muskegon, found out about the policy from a friend of his that’s inside the jail just yards away from him.

“Just think what we would’ve lost if we had not let Dr. King write letter when he was in Birmingham Jail. There’s a lot of issues involved here. Its starts off with a letter and then the next thing you know you’re losing something else.”

Sheriff Roesler says inmates’ speech is not stifled because they can send as many postcards as they want.

“Courts have recognized that certain rights are restricted when you come into jail or prison and in the interest of the security of the institution, sometimes we do have to restrict those rights.”

About a half a dozen other county jails in Michigan have similar post-card-only policies.

A county in Colorado reversed its post-card-only policy late last year after the ACLU threatened legal action.

The ACLU of Michigan says they have been looking into 'post-card-only' policies in the state.

Kevin Connors / MorgueFile

The Michigan Supreme Court may soon hear its first case on the state’s medical marijuana law.

Larry King of Owosso has a medical marijuana license from the state.  He was charged with a felony by the Shiawassee County prosecutor for growing marijuana in a locked dog kennel that did not have a roof. The Circuit Court dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals reinstated the felony charges.

Dan Korobkin is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. He says the prosecution shouldn’t charge King with a felony because King is legally allowed to grow marijuana:

“Instead of simply telling Mr. King that he needed to move his plants inside, or put a roof over it, they’re now prosecuting him on felony drug charges for the same offense that he would be charged with if he never had any medical marijuana card at all.”

Korobkin said Michigan voters approved the medical marijuana act to protect patients that were approved to use marijuana for medical reasons.

“We’re representing him because the prosecution of a medical marijuana patient who is complying with the law is a gross injustice and thoroughly undermines the intent of the voters in passing the Medical Marijuana Act."

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The American Civil Liberties Union is accusing Rochester High School administrators of denying students their First Amendment rights. The ACLU claims the web filtering software on the school’s computers censors Gay and Lesbian websites.   

Jay Kaplan is with the ACLU of Michigan. He says it's an important legal issue.  

“Students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse door.   Schools need to take a closer look at this sort of thing.”

Kaplan says if the school district does not change its web filtering software, the ACLU might take Rochester Community Schools to court. 

Jon Sullivan / Wikipedia Commons

The ACLU is challenging a state law that allows children to be taken away from their parents without proof that they’re in immediate danger.

Claire Zimmerman says she hopes the lawsuit will make sure what happened to her family never happens to anyone else.

Three years ago, Zimmerman’s son, who was seven at the time, was at a Tiger game. Her husband, Christopher Ratté, unknowingly bought their son a bottle of lemonade with alcohol, and in the ninth inning they were approached by a security guard, who asked Ratté whether he knew his son was drinking an alcoholic beverage. Ratté said no, but the police were called. The boy was taken into the state’s custody later that day.

The state refused to release the boy to Zimmerman, even though she was not at the game with her son, and the next day he was placed in a foster home, where he stayed for three days.

Zimmerman says the ordeal was a nightmare:

"(It's) very difficult not to know where your child is physically. We of course felt that we had really let him down."

ACLU-Michigan Legal Director Michael Steinberg says if the boy’s parents had not been University of Michigan professors with access to the school’s legal resources, they might have been separated from their son for much longer:

"Families without the resources of our clients are sometimes unjustly separated for weeks, if not months."

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare Michigan’s law unconstitutional because it violates parents’ rights to due process.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan’s law barring protesters from funerals might be vulnerable after today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court ruled in favor of an anti-gay group that pickets at military funerals.

Michigan, like dozens of other states, passed a law in 2006 to prevent the protests from disrupting funerals here.

At the time, the states were trying to prevent a fundamentalist Christian Church from Kansas from picketing military funerals.

The pickets were not opposing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but against gay rights.

The ACLU challenged Michigan’s law after a couple attending a family friend’s funeral was arrested for having anti-George W. Bush signs on their car.

Dan Korobkin, with the ACLU, says the new court ruling may be enough to tip the balance in their challenge to Michigan’s law:

“Laws that are created to stifle unpopular speech, which is what the law in Michigan was created to do, always end up backfiring and punishing innocent people.”

Korobkin says they hope to hear soon from the federal judge considering their challenge to the state law, "the federal judge who is overseeing that case has already indicated that it is probably unconstitutional, but he hasn’t taken the final step of striking it down," said Korobkin.

John Ter Beek
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The ACLU has filed lawsuits on behalf of medical marijuana users in the cities of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, and Livonia after those cities effectively banned medical marijuana.

Now add the city of Wyoming to the list of cities being sued by the ACLU. The ACLU said it will represent John Ter Beek "a medical marijuana patient who fears being penalized by local officials if he grows or uses medical marijuana in compliance with state law."

The Wyoming city council unanimously passed a ban on medical marijuana earlier this month.

Wyoming medical marijuana
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A Grand Rapid’s suburb is the latest city to adopt a ban on medical marijuana. Wyoming City Council voted unanimously in favor of local laws that reflect federal rules governing marijuana over the state’s new laws allowing medicinal use.

Mayor Jack Poll, who is also a pharmacist, says they would like to see medical marijuana dispensed as any other drug for the safety of the patient and the city’s neighborhoods.

Slightly North/Flickr

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Michigan for its law that allows people convicted as minors to be imprisoned for life with no chance of parole.

The ACLU says the law violates the U.S. Constitution because it is "cruel and unusual punishment."

In a press release, the ACLU says the lawsuit is:

...on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were minors. The lawsuit charges that a Michigan sentencing scheme that denies the now-adult plaintiffs an opportunity for parole and a fair hearing to demonstrate their growth, maturity and rehabilitation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates their constitutional rights.

According to the release:

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole, and Michigan incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger. Currently, there are 350 individuals serving such mandatory life sentences in Michigan. This includes more than 100 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole who were present or committed a felony when a homicide was committed by someone else.